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Debt deal comes down to Washington's favorite solution: a committee

WASHINGTON — Appoint a bipartisan, open-minded group of lawmakers to come up with a long-term plan to reduce the nation's budget deficit.

This Utopian vision, where spending cuts are married with tax revenue in a sweeping package worth up to $1.5 trillion, is a cornerstone of the debt ceiling deal the House approved late Monday and the Senate likely will pass today.

If it sounds familiar, that's because it is.

The looming debt crisis has led to the creation of several widely hyped committees, where each fell prey to an array of internal and external forces or saw their work ignored by Congress or President Barack Obama.

"Creating a committee or commission is a typical legislative dodge to thorny issues," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog. "Now it will come down to the 12 lawmakers House and Senate leadership select. And who gets selected is critical. If they're unyielding ideologues from either end of the political spectrum, not much will be accomplished."

The so-called "super committee'' was the second plank of the last-minute compromise to avoid a default. The overall plan, which would cut federal spending by at least $2.1 trillion over a decade, left most lawmakers unsatisfied though Republicans were the immediate winners, exacting deep cuts without tax increases.

Democrats, in turn, have placed their hopes on the committee, hoping to win a more balanced set of deficit-reducing measures, including more tax revenue.

The plan has a carrot and stick appeal. If Congress does not adopt the committee's recommendations, it will trigger cuts both parties find uncomfortable, including defense spending and domestic programs (excluding Medicaid and some education programs).

That's supposed to induce compromise but it will not come easy, and already partisan lines are hardening.

The divide can be distilled to a question of tax increases vs. entitlement cuts. Republicans are nearly lockstep against more tax revenue. Democrats sharply resist changes to entitlements like Medicare. Each face intense pressure from constituents and special interests.

Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson knows the dynamic well.

The Wyoming Republican was co-chairman of the debt cutting commission President Obama created in early 2010. The plan, which called for Social Security and tax reform in addition to spending cuts, failed to garner enough votes to force Congress to act. Obama also drew criticism for ignoring his own commission.

"It was obvious what happened," Simpson said in an interview Monday, singling out pressure from AARP, which did not want to touch Social Security, and Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform has forced most Republicans into signing pledges not to vote for tax increases.

"It doesn't get done because people worship the god of re-election," Simpson said. "Grover can't murder you. He can't burn your house. The only thing he can do is defeat you for re-election. If that means more to you than getting the corrective forces engaged in your country, well you ought to get out of Congress anyway."

An even bolder proposal came from a committee led by former Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin, but it too failed to catch on. Most recently, there was the bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Six, which broke up over philosophical differences.

Even before the House vote Monday evening there were fights over the super committee.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid insisted that taxes would be part of the mix, but House Republicans said they would never support higher taxes.

Supporters of the committee cast it as different than others.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has noted the committee would have no "outsiders," meaning it would be comprised of all lawmakers. He likened it to the Base Realignment and Closure Commission of the 1990s, which came up with a list of bases for closure.

The list was presented to Congress for an up-or-down vote, which is what would happen with the debt committee's recommendations, and accomplished what had been impossible on a case-by-case process.

"We're not talking about kicking the can down the road," McConnell said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation. "We're talking about this calendar year, before the year is out, Congress would be voting on this recommendation."

The White House expressed similar optimism Monday and argued public opinion was on its side in calling for a balanced approach of tax revenue and spending cuts.

Meantime, observers worry past failures will set the tone.

"The intransigence of both sides suggests this commission will be a stalemate," said Barry Bosworth, a former economic adviser in the Carter administration who is now with the Brookings Institution. "It'll go down to the wire again. We are not Greece but we should not ignore the fact that you can get into that kind of mess. This will take a bit of leadership."

Time line for the super committee's work

. Next: Naming a super committee. Six Republicans and six Democrats, half from the House and half from the Senate, will be named to the committee.

. In the fall: The committee will work on a bill that will have to eliminate at least $1.5 trillion more in cuts without touching Social Security or Medicaid spending. Any cuts targeting Medicare must affect only providers, not beneficiaries.

. Thanksgiving: The committee's proposal is due sometime around the Thanksgiving holiday.

. Before Christmas recess: The committee's proposal is due for a vote.

Source: National Journal

Debt deal comes down to Washington's favorite solution: a committee 08/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 6:35am]
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